There is so much to like about restaurants these days — inventive chefs, attentive servers, amazing food, a clear focus on the restaurant’s mission so you know what you’re getting into, a passion for the best of what’s fresh and local and packed with flavor, a true desire to please the customer. As a food writer who eats out frequently, I know it’s hard to get it right. But these days, it seems to be increasingly easy to get it wrong. These are the top 25 things I absolutely cannot stand while eating out:
1. I hate a restaurant website where a mariachi band starts to suddenly blast as you try to find the dinner menu.
2. I hate when a restaurant’s website is much better than the restaurant. Are there more outstanding graphic designers than outstanding chefs?
3. It makes me crazy when an online menu has no prices on it. So when I walk in, sit down and see that the cheese ravioli is $40 my head starts to spin.
4. A restaurant I went to in Santa Clara recently said their seafood was “as fresh as it could be.” Uh oh. That’s the best you can do?
5. Who wants to go to a place that can’t find your reservation or makes you spell you name three times, or who asks “what time did you say it was for?” — as if you are lying about your reservation.
6. Five words that stop me cold: “Is your party all here?” Why? And could that be any less gracious? What difference does it make?
7. Want to know what’s worse? The hostess who commands you to “Wait at the bar until your table is ready…” as if you had somehow failed the restaurant by showing up on time. “Do you have a reservation?” By that time I have plenty of them. Five words that stop me cold: “Is your party all here?” Why? And could that be any less gracious? What difference does it make?
8. Don’t get me started on tables. I don’t want to be so close to the next table that I can barely get in and could easily burn my bum on the little votive candle. I don’t want to be next to the bathroom or near the place where the bus boys hurl the dishes. I don’t want to be in the back back back of the room. Siberia. I don’t want to sit at a table that isn’t large enough to hold all platters and plates and wine glasses. Or under the air-conditioner or near the speakers or next to the kitchen or right by the door if it’s freezing cold out or at a table for eight when there are five of us. Who does?
9. Once, in a New York theater-district restaurant, our actor… I mean, waiter… just disappeared about halfway through the meal. We had to keep flagging other servers to help us. Finally I saw the maître d’ and said to him, in my most solicitous voice: “Oh, perhaps you could help. We haven’t seen out waiter for over half an hour. We just hope he’s okay…”
10. I don’t know much about art but I know I don’t really want to dine in a place where the art is the “abstract” paintings on the walls done by the owner’s mother’s sister-in-law. It makes me nervous when there’s a vintage toboggan or pair of skis right above my head at the table for “atmosphere.” (Couldn’t that thing fall?) I know you are a fish house: don’t give me huge murals of Italian sailors “heaving ho” in the colorful harbor. Also, “cork art” (cork trivets; assemblages) isn’t art. It’s bad Etsy.
11. I was recently at an Asian-Fusion restaurant in Tribeca where their gift shop (cookbooks, tea strainers, wine openers with their logo on it) was almost as big as our apartment. (I know this doesn’t reflect well on New York living, or our apartment.)
12. “This restaurant is too bright.” “This restaurant is too dark.” This restaurant is just right. I like places where I can see the menu and look 20 years younger. That’s my kind of lighting.
13. Booze-fueled parties of 30 celebrating Wiccan Day at the table next to us? Not if I can help it. It might be okay if they were celebrating National Brisket Day. (I wrote The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes. You know that, of course. So I forgive everything that has to do with celebrating the chest of the steer.)
14. Please don’t make me read a menu/almanac of the fifty devoted farmers who contributed to my meal, along with their addresses, a little blurb about how each of them feels about sustainability and the name of the animal we are eating.
15. Dining a la Trend. The waitress where we ate in San Francisco’s Mission District announced to me, “the flatbread is only a vessel for the crudo.” She then said to my boyfriend, “the toasted gnocchi is only a vessel for the salami.” I am more interested in content than vessels.
16. Don’t restaurants know that everyone loathes the server who asks “What are we having?” or who confides, “My favorite is…” I just went to a restaurant in Chicago where the server suggested a Greek white to go with my pike. Then, when I said it was fine, she gushed, “Oh I knew you would like it!” Didn’t we just meet five minutes ago? Then there’s the server who asks, “Are you still enjoying your meal?” (I might not be enjoying it to begin with and wouldn’t it just be better to say “Are you finished?” or to actually see that I am finished?)
17. There are restaurants where the owners aren’t there or are there and don’t care. One Yelper chronicled the owner of an East Village Italian restaurant who was so drunk he fell off the bar stool at dinner. It is all about hospitality. The last time I was at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, I thought “that can’t be owner Ari pouring water at the next table, can it?” It was. Thank you, Ari and Danny Meyer and Rick Bayless and Tom Colicchio and Seamus Mullen and Anita Lo, Paul Virant, and and and…
18. A few months ago I was in a pretty well-known Argentine steakhouse in New York. My “medium-rare” steak was handed to me and the moment I cut into it, it was obviously medium veering into medium-well. When I told my waiter, the most he could manage was a shrug and an “okay.” He grudgingly took it back. Even my egotistical cold-hearted laparoscopic surgeon said the “I’m sorry” words to me.
19. Please don’t think food lovers need to be entertained, amazed, or amused by anything other than the food. Skip the flaming, the flambéed, the Klezmer band music piped through the restaurant. Do not give us (I found this on a food blog) a “chocolate indulgence treasure chest with graham cracker sand” that was, the blogger raved, “Amazeballs.” I’m hoping that was a typo. The restaurants I really like don’t do “Amazeballs.”
20. It’s complicated. No, it doesn’t have to be. I love sophisticated places that don’t mind putting a cheeseburger on their dinner menu. Of course I love it even more when the beef is grass-fed and the burger is served with aged cheddar on something like a warm poppy-seed bun.
21. You don’t need a theme or a wink or a play on words. My boyfriend and I had lunch at the Legion of Honor Museum café in San Francisco. He had to choose between something like the Matisse Grilled Cheese and the Van Gogh Meatball Slider.
22. Don’t hire the maître d’ from hell. The one who, at the first sign of customer dissatisfaction, turns into a raging psychopath. My boyfriend and I recently ordered lunch at a Santa Fe café and waited… and waited… and waited… a good forty minutes… My boyfriend to the maître d’: “Where is our food? It’s been a while.” Maître d’: “No it hasn’t.”
23. I hate restaurants that think they’re funny when they’re not. I know it’s “Keep Austin Weird” but I don’t really want to go someplace that boasts — in neon — “Sorry, We’re Open.”
24. Don’t make me beg for the specials. Is it that hard to tell me that you have specials? And couldn’t you tell me before I have made up my mind about what to order?
25. When I do order, please don’t say “Wonderful!” or “Perfect!” Is there something the waiter would say shake his or her head at and say “Oh, really?” to?